Review: Once Upon A Time in Mexico

Three stars out of four (Rated R for strong violence, and for language) Running time: 102 minutes. It’s not easy to be the closing story in a trilogy. Often times fans of the series vote the second movie as the best, and the third film, while still good, can often be a letdown. Just ask most movie fans about “Return of the Jedi” or “The Godfather, Part III.””Once Upon a Time in Mexico” is another film indicative of this pattern. The third film in Robert Rodriguez’s “El Mariachi” trilogy, it suffers the inevitable fate of being compared to its predecessor, an act that it can’t follow.Don’t get me wrong – there’s much to like in this film. It’s a visual treat, filled with style, humor and plenty of kinetic energy. As a stand-alone film, it is brilliant for the most part. Some good popcorn action occurs on screen, and there is an inexplicable beauty and craftsmanship that permeates through each frame. The movie opens with El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) in semi-retirement, living in a reclusive village as a guitar maker after decimating the populations of many towns filled with drug dealers and other criminals in the previous films. This all changes, however, thanks to interference by a slimy but lively CIA agent named Sands (Johnny Depp) out to recruit El Mariachi. Sands wants the guitar-strumming gunman to help stop a violent coup that is about to take place, which will end with the Mexican president dead and the country in the hands of a violent crime lord named Barrillo (Willem Dafoe). Unbeknownst to El Mariachi, Agent Sands is working both sides of the street, playing the president into the hands of his would be assassins so that he can intercept the money for the hit and keep it for himself. Along the way he also manages to get former FBI agent Jorge (Ruben Blades) interested under false pretenses of breaking up Barrillo’s cartel. The rest of the plot is made up of various minor characters, including a Mexican federale general, El Mariachi has a violent past with, two fellow gun carrying guitar players Lorenzo (Enrique Iglesias) and Fideo (Marco Leonardi) also recruited to stop to assassination, and remorseful gangster Billy Chambers (Mickey Rourke) whom Jorge is using to incriminate Barrillo. In terms of plot, “Once Upon a Time” is running strictly on formula. There are no real surprises for the most part, with just clich characters going through the motions of double-crossing one another and snarling at the screen. To try to mask this, though, each of the major players are provided with some tick to make them more interesting – Barrillo plays the piano, Chambers constantly carries his pet Chihuahua, and Sands changes outfits in every scene.Acting skills, however, help elevate every performance in this film. Banderas makes El Mariachi a modern version of Clint Eastwood’s “Man-with-no-name” from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, silent, brooding and calm though always ready to strike like a rattlesnake. He is the ultimate living nightmare to every criminal, a seemingly unstoppable force of vengeance and destruction, and Banderas’s performance reminds us of why the role made him a star eight years ago.Depp easily steals every scene he’s in as the psychotic but strangely likeable Sands, always ready, willing and able to do the unthinkable with a smile on his face. Whether he’s talking nonchalantly about killing a cook because his pork dish was too good to be true and it’s his job to fix that, or by interfering with a bullfight so that a cocky matador doesn’t have the odds stacked in his favor anymore just to prove a point about the necessity of rigging the game. Along with his role in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” Depp is clearly having a great summer making bad guys look good. Less realized but still interesting are Rourke and Blades, both reminding us of a time when they were both in top form, and hopefully thanks to this film, will be again. Salma Hayek is also memorable as El Mariachi’s love interest Carolina. However, for all the hoopla about her role she only appears in flashbacks from a story that takes place between “Desperado” and this one. Rodriguez is clearly a skilled filmmaker when it comes to technical thrills, but “Once Upon a Time” ultimately collapses under its own weight in the story department. The shootouts are also a step down compared to the previous film in the series, though they still managed to light up the screen. Alone it might have been hailed as a minor classic, but compared to its two predecessors, it just lacks the firepower to be truly great.

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